The driver of our pontoon boat cut the motor as we ducked into a marsh branching off the Anacostia River.
Here, the murmur of the city gave way to chirping birds and the greening landscape of Kenilworth Marsh, the only freshwater tidal wetland on the river that has remained largely intact over its complicated history.
“When you come in August, it’s flush and lush and green and tall,” our guide, Lee Cain, director of recreation for the Anacostia Watershed Society, said. “Here we are in the middle of Washington, DC, and here’s this resource in the middle of the city.”
The rest of the wetlands on this river are not so fortunate. The oft-misunderstood “mosquito-breeding mudflats” were the victim of infrastructure projects to provide jobs and quell bugs in the District of Columbia in the 1930s. The Army Corps of Engineers eliminated most of the river’s wetlands with construction along the river that included building an 8-mile long wall along both of its sides.
By 1970, 96 percent of the river’s wetlands had been destroyed through such efforts, which also had the effect of straightening the waterway’s natural path. It would be another 20 years before intensive restoration efforts would begin to resurrect the river that once was.
Though that river is still very much in the midst of its makeover, groups involved with its restoration want the millions of people that live in the greater DC area to know: The Anacostia is open for business.
The 9-mile stretch from Bladensburg, MD, to where the Anacostia and Potomac rivers meet and form the District’s southern border is the focus of a new Anacostia Water Trail and map.
While 80 percent of the Anacostia watershed is in Maryland, the District is embracing the river as an urban waterway worth protecting and, now that its health is improving, worth exploring.
“Right now, there’s a lot of stigma about the Anacostia River, I think it is largely because people haven’t been on it,” Cain said, adding that its sordid image may be an unintended consequence of ongoing restoration efforts. “In the first 20 years of our organization’s life, we did a really good job of painting a nasty picture because we wanted the attention that was needed to direct funding to restore what needed to be restored.”
Now, the river is coming into a new light. It’s an urban escape that offers visitors not only ecological diversity — with migratory ospreys fishing its waters and turtles growing like moss on logs near the shoreline — but also a variety of experiences.
Near Bladensburg, the return of tidal wetlands to the river make it feel far from the city. Birds of prey coast overhead as paddlers weave their way in and out of shaded treescapes that provide habitat to fish below.
As the river winds south to meet the Potomac, its shoreline transitions into an increasingly urban landscape. The view is dotted with pieces of the District’s past, like dilapidated power plants waiting for demolition — and its future, the Nationals baseball stadium. The ballpark is a visible symbol of the type of development that has brought retail, restaurants and a waterfront recreation area called Yards Park, which includes the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, to the southern portion of the river.
The National Park Service released the new Anacostia Water Trail map (see insert) at the end of 2013 to help urban residents and visitors visualize the river’s many resources. The Anacostia Water Trail is part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail and also follows a portion of the Star Spangled Banner National Historic Trail.
During the War of 1812, the Battle of Bladensburg was one of the last efforts, albeit unsuccessful, to halt British troops on their way to set the nation’s capital ablaze.
Perhaps what makes the Anacostia River most enticing to visitors is its proximity to one of the country’s most visited cities. Residents who may take for granted their easy access to monuments on the National Mall have developed a growing interest in the urban waterway that cozies up to their city.
Many have participated in cleanup projects to remove trash from the river, or paid DC’s bag tax at the grocery store, which has helped reduce the number of plastic bags floating in the river.
The majority of residents interact with the Anacostia by bicycle. The trail that runs along portions of its length is becoming more popular with both commuters and weekend cyclists, and now it’s being extended. Construction is under way to connect the paved bike path and the trail that runs south from Maryland along the river but stops north of New York Avenue. Farther down the river, south of Benning Road, paved bikeways line both sides of the water and continue south to Anacostia and Yards parks.
A wooden footbridge near Benning Road also provides bike and pedestrian access to Heritage and Kingman Islands in the center of the river, not far from RFK Stadium.
“More people are going to experience this river through bicycling than even paddling,” Cain said. “We’re trying to make the river as accessible as possible for paddling, but still, bikes are just way more accessible.”
(Those who don’t have access to a bicycle can rent one from Capital Bikeshare hubs throughout the city, which are also shown on the new map.)
Bladensburg Waterfront Park offers bikes, kayaks and canoes for rent along one of the greenest portions of the river’s north end. An easy paddle south from the park brings a variety of wildlife and greenery into view.
Just south of Beaverdam Creek, the Kenilworth Marsh offers access to the noteworthy aquatic gardens by the same name. Cain called the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, which feature lotus and water lilies in full bloom in the summer months, “one of the gems of the Anacostia.” But he warns inexperienced paddlers that it’s not wise to access the gardens by boat without a guide — and a keen awareness of the tides — which can fall around 3 feet and leave a kayaker stranded in the mud.
A few paddles south, boaters can park their vessels and pop into the U.S. National Arboretum, a zoo for plants and one of the few national treasures accessible by boat.
Cain said about 1,000 people use a floating dock on the river to access the arboretum by boat each year, although government funding cuts have impacted the arboretum’s hours of operation.
For those who discover the southern portion of the Anacostia River, perhaps while walking to a baseball game at Nationals Stadium, the Ballpark Boathouse rents kayaks and encourages newcomers.
For some, appreciating the Anacostia River’s unique beauty — which hinges in part on realizing just how far its restoration has come — requires a guided tour that can put it all into perspective. Tours hosted by the Anacostia Watershed Society take off from Bladensburg Waterfront Park and include tidbits about the river’s ecology and history.
Participants and guides alike may wonder just how many people lost their lives along the aptly named Dueling Creek, where 28 duels were recorded across the water that separates the District from Maryland. And in the next breath, they hear how that stretch of creek, now filled with emergent shrubs that are helping to filter the water, was once the natural path of the river before crews directed it elsewhere.
“That creek is neat, because it maintains the original geology. You can’t find that anywhere else on the river,” said Cain, who hosts most of the guided tours.
His insights into the river range from its unexpected delights — “In the lower river, you can paddle up, watch a baseball game and then have a fine dining experience” — to its persistent problems.
He holds up a map of the river and the surrounding area, noting how little of it is green. That’s why, after a heavy rain, plastic bottles and bright specks of debris line portions of the river and form floating islands of trash at its shallowest spots. The pollutants and trash that had been on pavement and in parking lots in the city end up here, in the river. Also, although the river has shown great improvement, it is still not safe enough to swim in, nor are fish taken from its waters safe to eat.
But all that is part of the tour — and a key reason why more people need to get out onto and near the water, Cain said.
“I think people expect it to be a lot grosser and a lot more urbanized,” Cain said of people’s first impressions. “Then they get out there and they see an osprey with a fish in his mouth. But, at the same time, there’s a dichotomy because there’s trash floating all over the place.”
The Watershed Society also offers free paddle nights from a variety of locations in the city that are bringing new audiences onto the water. Cain said the events have become popular with residents who walk from their neighborhoods to float down the river for the first time.
“We’ve really demonstrated demand for some amenities here,” he said.
Cain would like to see the community embrace the Anacostia as a recreational asset, the way DC residents adore Rock Creek Park and the Sligo Creek Trail. He’s hoping the new guide will remind people of the waterway in their backyard, one that’s worth exploring anew.
- Anacostia Water Trail: (trail map & resources): www.anacostiaws.org/anacostia-water-trail
- Anacostia Watershed Society Paddle Nights: www.anacostiaws.org/get-involved/recreation/paddling
- Guided Tours: www.anacostiaws.org/discover.
- Bladensburg Waterfront Park (boat & bike rentals, tours): www.pgparks.com/Things_To_Do/Nature/Bladensburg_ Waterfront_Park.htm
- Anacostia Community Boathouse: www.anacostiaboathouse.org
- Ballpark Boathouse: www.boatingindc.com/ballpark-boathouse
Things to do
- U.S. National Arboretum: www.usna.usda.gov
- Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens: www.nps.gov/keaq/index.htm
- Capital Bikeshare: www.capitalbikeshare.com
- Kingman & Heritage Islands: www.kingmanisland.org
- Anacostia Park: www.nps.gov/anac/index.htm
- Yards Park: www.yardspark.org